Mark 15 — Good Friday

Reading: Mark 15

I know that the calendar says that today is “Palm Sunday”, but in our study of Mark’s gospel, we are on Good Friday. The reason why it is traditional to have a good Friday service is that you cannot jump from Palm Sunday to Easter. Holy Week is a full week; and by far the best covered week in the gospels; and this is why we’ve been studying passages that take place during Holy week for over a month.

In Mark’s account, Friday’s events begin at sunrise. Last week we talked about the non-binding midnight, hidden trial that happened so that they could secretly condemn Jesus to death — but the first thing in the morning there is the need to have a trial in a court that was able to do something about it — so, at sunrise they bind Jesus and take him to Pilate.

Pilate hears the findings of the secret night court, and he asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, and about the list of accusations that the local government takes to Rome. Jesus again offers no defense, which surprises Pilate. Pilate apparently does not feel that these charges deserve death, so he asks the crowd which prisoner he should release — offering the choice between Jesus and Barabbas the murderer. When the crowd asked that he pardon Barabbas and punish Jesus — Pilate asked the crowd what his crime was — but the crowd simply yelled crucify him and Mark tells us Pilate had Jesus crucified because he wished to “satisfy the crowd.”

This double trial tells us something of the rights of the local government — while they had the autonomy to order that a man be arrested, to convict that somebody, and to order a punishment of beating, they did not have the autonomy necessary to execute somebody. They did not only submit to Rome for the purpose of paying taxes, but also in matters of justice.

Pilate’s actions also give us a hint of his position; and the hint it gives me is that he must have felt some insecurity in the position. If you notice, Pilate wants to please the crowd; now he’s not in an elected position — Pilate had no direct reason to please the crowd — none of the crowd has a vote on his position — now why would he want to please them?

A huge hint comes in that the public executions included a person who was involved in an insurrection. If there had been such instability recently enough that there were public executions for the sake of an insurrection, that had to reflect poorly on Pilate. The worst thing that could happen to him is if his superiors in Rome felt he was not up to the task of governing.

Now, something that I find interesting is that when Pilate examined Jesus and heard the accusations, which clearly included that he claimed the Jewish throne, Pilate’s response was to ask the crowd if they would like Jesus, the king of the Jews to be pardoned. Mark tells us that Pilate recognized that the local leadership turned over Jesus out of jealousy — in other words, he didn’t see Jesus as a threat to himself — but, instead, a threat to the local politicians — basically, it was an issue that he didn’t want to get involved with. I might say that Pilate didn’t like the idea of these local leaders bothering him at dawn, and trying to pull his strings and make him dance like he was their puppet.

In the end, Pilate does what the crowd demands — he does not want a riot — and Jesus is again beat and mocked. When Jesus is lead away to be crucified, one of the people in Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus is pressed to carry Jesus’ cross. Cyrene is part of what is now Libya — actually, some of us have are very familiar with this part of the world: Benghazi, Libya is historically part of Cyrene.

Tradition tells us that Simon and his family later lived in Antioch, and were part of that Christian community. Paul mentions Rufus and his mother in Romans, and while I don’t know much of anything about Alexander — tradition tells us that Rufus is one of the 70 disciples Jesus sent out to preach, and it also tells us that he was a leader of the early church, at one point becoming bishop of Thebes. The point is, when this story is being told, these are people who are known in the early church. While the soldiers pressed a random man to carry Jesus’ cross — he, and his whole family were known as part of the resurrection community.

Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified at 9:00 AM. From dawn to 9:00 is, in the early spring just 3 hours. The Roman trial, the mocking, the beating, the walk to the spot of the Crucifixion all took place in just 3 hours. When Jesus was crucified, the mocking continued. The local politicians mocked Jesus, and those on the cross also mocked Jesus. When Jesus said Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani, people thought he was calling for Elijah, and said: “Let’s see if Elijah comes.”

Mark tells us that basically all that is left of his group of disciples is a couple women named Mary who followed Jesus, and provided for his physical needs, and perhaps other women as well. At the time of the Crucifixion the men were scattered, but the women where there at the end.

Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council; in other words, somebody who might have been at Jesus’ trial the night before, went to Pilate and asked for the body to be buried. Joseph is traditionally considered to be one of Jesus’ disciples, and thus, one might assume that Joseph was a reason why the conflicting testimony delayed a conviction; perhaps not everybody decided in advance. The Marys see Jesus buried.

Like before, Mark’s account is the briefest; there is much of the story that Mark does not tell — Mark only mentions women at the Crucifixion — Mark does not mention Jesus saying to John: “behold your mother.” Another thing that one does not see in Mark is Pilate sending Jesus to face Herod. Mark also does not have the exchange between Jesus and the thieves on the cross; we only see that the others who were put to death also mocked him.

Mark does not tell us of Jesus appearing before Herod, nor does it have the scene in Matthew where Pilate’s wife has a dream about Jesus, and Pilate at the end washes his hands; It really is hard to read Mark without filling in the details that are in the other gospels.

When I think of the little bit that Mark did include — the feeling is one of how sudden the Crucifixion is; at dawn, the council is banging on Pilate’s door, and by 9 AM Jesus is being nailed to the cross. Whatever hesitations Pilate has in Matthew are not there — instead Pilate simply tests the resolve of the crowd and learns that those who are there, and not only the council wish this to happen.

Two things that stand out for me in Mark’s account of the Crucifixion are the soldier who says: “Truly this was the Son of God” when he sees Jesus die, and that Joseph, who took Jesus’ body and buried him in his personal tomb was on the council. There were two men who were, at least nominally, part of the system that put Jesus on the cross — Joseph, as a member of the council, was part of the body that first convicted Jesus and the Centurion was an executioner; yet both of these saw that the one who was crucified was someone special.

Tradition tells us that the centurion was not only present for the Crucifixion, but was also the leader of the group of soldiers who guarded the tomb after the resurrection. Tradition also tells us that after seeing all this, the Centurion was baptized, left military service and went to his home in Cappadocia where he shared what he saw and experienced. Tradition also tells us that he was executed by Roman soldiers.

The reason these two people stand out is this is a reversal from what I am used to in my own culture. Often the enemy is depicted in ways that make it more difficult to sympathize with them. Our stories are very often simplistic — and we apply this to the gospel, to the point that many of us have turned Pharisee into an insult, when there is nothing shameful about being a Pharisee.

Mark’s gospel does not tell us so much of the story that we are used to hearing — but it does tell us explicitly that there was at least one member of the ‘council’ who felt Jesus deserved a proper burial — and who tradition tells us was one of two voices on the council who opposed the plot against Jesus. The soldiers in an occupation force are not often presented in a sympathetic way; yet here is a soldier who is on of those who participates in making the Crucifixion happen, yet he is also one of the first to recognize who Jesus is. Part of the gospel is that even at the worst moments; those moments when we are suffering under our enemies — these enemies are still not beyond redemption; and this is good news especially for anyone who needs salvation.

Mark 14:17-31 — Thursday, Part 1

Reading:  Mark 14:17-31
Holy Week is really hard for me to get my head around. Today, our reading tells us about supper, Thursday evening. We will be talking about Thursday evening this week and next week; but what stands out is that this is worse than the worst Thursday that I could imagine. With a Thursday like this, if I were in Jesus’ shoes — I would seriously consider fleeing Jerusalem, and spending Passover somewhere else; you see, it is not just what happened, but that Jesus knew what was coming.

Mark’s version of the last supper is extremely short. If you recall, last year we studied John — and John’s last supper filled several chapters. The day is called Maundy Thursday by English speakers because of John; it is thought that this is “mandate Thursday”, the day Jesus gave Christians the commandment that they love one another. Mark however has the shortest account of this dinner — and, this account is to me the most uncomfortable. Mark does not include any of this teaching — so I cannot be distracted by anything other than the raw emotion of what is coming soon.

The account of the last supper starts with:

When it was evening, he came with the twelve, and when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”

Hearing this, the disciples were greatly distressed, and all denied that it was them; then Jesus goes through a disturbing ritual where he calls the bread and the wine his own flesh and blood. As you likely know, cannibalism is deeply offensive, and eating or drinking blood is not only a taboo but is is forbidden by Torah. Eating blood is one of the things specifically mentioned in Genesis 9 as God’s covenant with Noah, and by extension the rest of humanity. When Acts 15 forbids the eating of animals that are butchered by strangulation — the reason why is because the blood does not drain from the body, but stays in the meat. Kosher salt is called Kosher salt, because it is used by butchers to help draw blood out of meat, so that the meat becomes kosher.

If eating blood is such a taboo that the council of Jerusalem would order Gentile Christians to abstain from strangled meat, and Jews are so careful about getting blood out of meat that they not only let it drain, but they also use salt to draw more out, then how much more must they be offended by the idea of drinking blood; even if it is just symbolically.

After dinner, Jesus tells all the disciples that they will all leave him, and he tells Peter that he will deny them. No matter what Peter or the other disciples say, Jesus knows what is coming, and Jesus knows that when it comes he will be alone. The disciples on the other hand have no idea what is coming, but they surely had a disturbing night. Their teacher said and had them do something shockingly offensive, and then told them that they would all abandon him.

This isn’t the first shocking moment, remember what we talked about last week when Jesus came out of the temple and talked about the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of everything that seemed solid in the world? From the Triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the last supper must have been surreal. I cannot see how anything made sense, nor how any of them could be comfortable. Everybody must have been quite anxious this Thursday evening — but Jesus saw what was to happen — and, in his way he told the Disciples; he told them directly, he told them his body would be broken, and his blood would be poured out, he told them directly they would be scattered, he told Peter that Peter would deny him that very night.

When I read Mark, I respond to it by feeling how real this is. One might say that the last Supper in Mark makes me feel like the garden of Gethsemane is already in Jesus’ heart when he sits down to eat with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is already committed to drinking the cup that he must drink. All day Thursday, Jesus knew what would come later in the day — and he knew what would come on Friday.

This is another point where Mark does not tell us anything more than the story, and he writes the narrative using as few words as possible. I feel like the only thing that I have to learn from this passage in Mark’s gospel is compassion for Jesus and compassion for the disciples. This is a challenging day for all of them, and by the time the day ends, it is a day that every one of the 12 is ashamed of — one will even die from his shame as he hangs himself. This is a passage that invites us to feel compassion, and it reminds us that Christ also has suffered, and is capable of compassion for us.

Mark 13:1-27 — end of the world; dawn of Christianity

Reading: Mark 13:1-27

After Jesus and the disciples go to the temple, he talks to them about what is for anybody in their culture the end of the world; the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. This talk must have been difficult to hear for so many reasons, and there must have been so much that went through the disciples minds when they heard these prophecies — there must have also been many things that went through their minds as their lives unfolded; but the first think that comes to mind is confusion.

The first place the mind must have gone is the literal absurdity of the temple being destroyed so completely. King Herod took the 500 year old temple and completely renovated and expanded it. The temple was built on a plateau on Mt. Moriah, and Herod built up the mountain, replacing the slope with a floor that matched the level of the plateau; the Temple became a great feat of engineering as it was no longer a building on a mountain, but the land itself was changed to hold the temple. This great structure is, of course no longer there; but when my grandfather visited Jerusalem, he was able to visit the Dome of the Rock, and he told me of the flat stone covering the Temple Mount. Not one stone of the temple remains — but the alteration to the Mountain that allowed this temple to be built remains.

The temple was an impressive structure; one would look at it and wonder at how such a thing could be built; and one would also wonder how it would be so completely destroyed. There was something about the Temple that was just as permanent as Jerusalem — it would have been hard to imagine a Jerusalem without a temple. The temple, if it survived, would remain as a wonder of the ancient world.

Of course, they might also start to think about the history of the descendant’s of Israel and where they worshiped. The story starts of course with the Exodus. A portable temple that we call the Tabernacle was made during the time of Moses, and as the people of Israel wandered in the desert, their Tabernacle moved with them. The place of worship moved with the people, but even after the people of Israel were settled, they continued to use the Tabernacle.

After the people of Israel were settled for centuries, David observed that he lived in a royal palace, yet the sacrifices, and the national place of worship was a mere tent. It had been hundreds of years since the Israelis were nomadic; people lived in permanent houses — yet, the Tabernacle was a relic of the nomadic past when they were landless people. David felt it was not appropriate that he had a palace, and that God had a tent — so he called for a temple.

God tells the prophet Nathan to tell David that God never asked for a temple, and that he would not build one — but his son would build it. Solomon’s temple was impressive. It had impressive wood panels, gold inlays, and many gold artifacts. The temple lasted 400 years, until the Babylonians came and burned it down and took all of the gold and the artifacts.

After 70 years, Cyrus the great ordered that the Jews be allowed to return to Jerusalem. There were some attempts to rebuild the temple; first Zerubbable, prince of the Jews in line to David’s throne was appointed governor. The Persians sent raw materials, and ordered the temple to be rebuilt; and according to the prophet Haggai, Zerubbable built a ‘richly paneled’ house for himself while the temple lay in ruins; the implication is that he used the material that was intended for the temple.

Zerubbable, the prince of the Jews was replaced with a governor-priest, Ezra, who was replaced with Nehemiah. After a couple false starts, the temple was rebuilt, but it was just a shadow of what the original was. The second temple lacked several things that were in the first, but the most important was that there was not ark of the covenant — the symbol of God’s presence that was in the most holy place in the first was missing so that the holy of holies in the second temple was empty.

Eventually, the Greeks conquer the Persians, and Judea falls under Greek rule. The Greeks try Hellenize the Jews by forcing them to eat pork. They even put up a statue of Zeus in the temple, and sacrificed a pig to Zeus to rededicate the temple to Zeus. The Jews would of course revolt, drive the Greeks out, and rededicate the temple, and establish an independent Jewish kingdom — the celebration of this is called Hanukkah, and we read about this in the Maccabees.

Mark Antony set up Herod as king of the Jews, so he replaced the Hasmonean dynasty with his own kingdom, and Judea was at this point very much a client kingdom of Rome. Herod was, among other things, a great builder; you might say that he made Jerusalem great again — and, while nothing could return the ark of the covenant to the temple, he not only made the temple great again; but he made it greater than it had ever been.

The history of the temple is the history of the Jewish world ending; the Jewish world fell apart when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and it fell apart again when the new temple was defiled by the Greek empire. Perhaps when the disciples heard this, they would think of the meaning of Hanukkah, or perhaps they would think of the destruction of the first temple.

No matter what the disciples thought Jesus meant, very soon they would watch their world completely fall apart. In a few days Jesus would be arrested, tried, and executed. With Jesus, the hopes that the disciples held would die no less than if the temple were torn down — the disciples world was about to end.

Of course, Peter would have told this story after the Resurrection — while his world ended, a new order was re-established, but this story also remained current. Peter lived through some interesting times; the last three emperors of his time were named Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Caligula is famous for being a murderous madman. His antics include ordering members of the audience into the Colosseum to be executed, because there were not enough prisoners for his entertainment. Perhaps the best known antic was when he had a horse made a senator — and that he would have political dignitaries dine with the horse.

A lesser known antic, however, is that Caligula heard that the temple in Jerusalem had no divine image for people to worship, and he realized that although he was a god, there was no temple with his image — he thought it would be great to solve both problems by erecting a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem. Fortunately, he was assassinated before this happened.

Claudius had the Jews expelled from Rome, due to a disturbance related to somebody named Chrestus. Now, there are two possibilities — either this is the first time that Christians became known to the Emperor, and at this time they were seen as part of a Jewish argument, or this Chrestus is somebody else. Either way, negative imperial attention is a bad thing.

When Claudius’ nephew Nero became emperor, the Christians got his full attention in the first full persecution of Christians. Among the Christians who were executed under Nero were Peter and Paul. One might say that for the Christians, the first great persecution would be the end of the world, a time when you really don’t know whether you will be taken or left alive.

Personally, I like the idea that the gospel of Mark was the story that Peter told; and that this oral story was written down by memory after his death. Peter died in the mid to late 60’s, between 2 and 6 years before Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed. The war that led to the destruction of the Temple started in 66 AD, at which point Peter might still have been alive — the war began as an anti-tax protest, and escalated into a full scale war. Peter would die before this war ended, but the prophecy of the desolation and destruction was, at the time that Mark was put to paper, current events. The temple would be completely destroyed in 70 AD.

Titus attacked Jerusalem just before Passover, just under 30 years after Jesus predicted the fall of the temple. According to Josephus, over 1 million civilians would die, most of which were visitors to Jerusalem who were trapped in the siege, and as the city was under siege; the people who came in to celebrate Passover largely died of starvation.

After Jerusalem was razed, and the temple was completely destroyed, and the city lays in ruins for 60 years. The Emperor Hadrian builds a new city on the site of Jerusalem named Capitolina, and he dedicates the city to Jupiter. This remains the name of the city until the 7th century AD, when the city falls to the Arabs.

After the temple and the city was destroyed in 70 AD, Jerusalem would not be a Jewish city again until the 20th century. The temple would, as far as anybody can tell, never be rebuilt. At this point, the world ended; and a new world had to be rebuilt; it was a terrible time to be a Jew, and it was not an easy time to be a Christian either.

Jesus prophesied a very hard thing to imagine; something that would produce an existential crisis for Jews, and a great persecution against His followers. Nero’s time came, the persecution came, and Jerusalem was completely destroyed — but, both Christianity and Judaism survived — but both also changed. Rabbinic Judaism developed in absence of the temple becoming something that we can recognize now; and as the disciples were being killed, something new happened in Christianity: Christians began writing down the stories and teachings of Christ; Christianity changed from people who expected the world to end, to people who watched their world end, and realized that there would be another generation after them. Christianity changed from people who remembered Jesus to people who wrote down memories of Jesus before they were lost.

We are the community that survived the end of the world. While Peter lived, he likely did not imagine that Christianity would be in parts of the world that were not yet discovered, and that people would be talking about the stories that he told 19 and a half centuries after he died. I imagine that Peter spent his life believing that he’d see Jesus coming back in the clouds. I think there is a reason that Christian scripture is largely written from the time of Nero to Domitian. I think the reason is that before, Christians see the prophecies of the world falling apart, and do not realize they will survive. Once they watch Jerusalem fall, and they experience the persecutions, they see that Christianity not only survives, but it thrives; yet it must thrive without the first Christians — it must change. Nero kills Peter, but we exchange Peter and the others for our Bible.

Mark 10:46-52 Bartimaeus the last disciple

Reading:  Mark 10:46-52

The healing of Bartimaeus is unique; there is nothing like it in the book of Mark. I know, it seems familiar; Mark has three stories of Jesus healing blind people, and there is a way that it strongly resembles when Jesus healed the man blind from birth in Jerusalem — but as far as Mark goes there is only one healing like it. I found three things unique in the gospel account: How the Blind man was introduced, how he addressed Jesus, and how he responded once he was healed.

If you notice, Mark’s gospel tells us that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus was sitting by the roadside. Now, you’ve likely noticed that when Jesus heals people in Mark, a very common description is: “And Jesus healed many who were sick.” Sometimes, there is a longer description of the healing — such as the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof when Jesus had a chance to go home, but it is rare that we can identify who was healed from the passage. Even when Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law, or Jarius’ daughter, the person who was left unnamed. Bartimaeus is the only person Jesus healed who was significant enough to be given a name.

As you might know, name-dropping is generally something you do with names that are familiar to the group. When this story was originally told, it is fairly safe to assume that people hearing the story when Peter told it in person would know who Bartimaeus was; this lead me to an observation that I find curious; I have no idea who this man was outside of the Biblical text. Usually when I see a name in the New Testament, I can find what Christian tradition has to say about the person; but as far as I can tell, Christian tradition is silent on this man. While Peter named the blind man healed in Jerusalem, Luke apparently edited the name out. Bartimaeus was important enough to name when the apostles were still preaching the gospel, but the reason has been forgotten; then again, perhaps the other two unique things in this story may offer us a hint.

The second unique feature of this story is when Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, He cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” When we see this, we see the blind beggar publicly saying something about Jesus that nobody else says; that he is the son, and perhaps the Heir of David. Peter might have recognized that Jesus was the Messiah privately, but this blind beggar publicly proclaimed who Jesus was while he was calling for mercy. He wanted to be healed, and he asked for healing — but he knew that Jesus was more than just a healer.

The final feature of this story that is unique is how the blind man responded to the healing. I’m going to get back to this idea in a little bit, but first, I want us to consider what happened when Jesus healed people. Generally, when Jesus healed people, after they got what they needed they went home, and presumably went on with their lives. Perhaps the best example is Luke 17, where Jesus heals ten lepers — he tells the ten to go and show themselves to the priests (so they can be accepted back into society.) All ten of them are healed, but only two return to Jesus to say “Thanks you.” While Jesus asks where the other 8 are, if I look at all the stories of healing, I get the idea that even 2 out of 10 coming back to say thank-you was an extraordinarily rare event. Once people get what they want, they go away.

Now, I know that this is much like the experience that we have in real life. If you talk with people who work with soup kitchens, or food pantries, or any number of aid charities, you will learn that you don’t get very many thank-you notes for your work. People know that you are there for those who need something, and they take what they need and go home. Whether we like it or not, this is the nature of things — the relationship is purely one of providing a service to someone who needs the service.

Many of us also know somebody who only calls when he or she needs something, but who is never there for us. This was the relationship Jesus appears to have had with almost everybody that he healed. Bartimaeus was different; he got up from where he was begging, and followed Jesus on the way. This is exactly what the disciples did — they left their familiar old life and followed Jesus. If I were to guess why Bartimaeus was named, I would guess it is because he was one of the disciples.

After this, there are no more stories of those Jesus healed in Mark’s gospel. We are now in the last week of Jesus’ life; immediately after Bartimaeus follows Jesus, Mark moves on to the triumphal entry. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way, but at this point the cross is only a week away. Bartimaeus knows something about who Jesus is, he does what disciples do right at the time when it was hardest to be a disciple and even the 12 were scattered. His story is one that I wish were not forgotten.

Mark 8:1-21 — Yeast of Herod and the Pharisees

Reading:  Mark 8:1-21

Like last week, the story of the feeding of 5000 does not stand in isolation — but, if you skip forward a couple chapters you read the story of the feeding of the 4000. The feeding of the 4000 sounds very familiar, so familiar that it is tempting to guess that it is another version of the same story.

There is a pattern to this as well. You might have noticed that last week in Chapter 5, the Sunday school lesson talked about Jesus healing the demon possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes — and the feeding of the 4000 follows the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and the Greek deaf-mute that I spoke of last week. Chapters 5-8 have important elements that are repeated — whether it is the healing of those the Jews consider enemies, or the feeding of large crowds.

When something is repeated like this, there is a hint that there is something that we are supposed to learn. When Jesus talks to the disciples about what they are supposed to learn from a teaching or an event, it is something that we should pay attention to as well. I imagine that everybody who listened noticed something. I will briefly share what came out when I read this text.

First, I notice that the motivation for feeding the crowds is compassion. At the feeding of the 5000, the disciples had compassion, and encouraged Jesus to send the people to the city where they could buy food. In the feeding of the 4000, Jesus had compassion because they had been with him for three days saying: “If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way.”

The next thing I notice is that the disciples never expect a miracle. We read any of the gospels, and it appears that Jesus is constantly doing miracles — but, even when it is something the disciples have seen before they still seem surprised. The second time, when Jesus tells the disciples he wants to feed another crowd, the answer is: “How can one feed these people in the desert?” This is all the more remarkable as the writer of Mark goes out of his way to tell the reader that they have seen this before. Mark 8 begins telling us that “there was again a great crowd without anything to eat.” Later when Jesus talks to the disciples and mentions this miracle, Jesus asks specifically about feeding both the 5000 and the 4000, asking: “How many baskets are left over.”

The final thing that I notice is that the disciples never seem to learn. The disciples hear every sermon Jesus preaches, they hear every parable, and they even have Jesus to privately explain what they never understood — yet they never understand. Sometimes, I wonder if Peter and the others didn’t exaggerate their cluelessness, because it is hard to believe that they could have missed everything Jesus said and taught and did while they were standing there and studying under Him.

After Jesus teaches and feeds the people, he leaves, and the next place he goes he has the Pharisees calling for a sign. I find it remarkable that “no sign will be given to this generation,” because it seems like there are huge signs everywhere that Jesus goes. Remember what Jesus told the disciples of John when John asked if Jesus was the messiah? “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everywhere Jesus goes, there are signs unless one chooses to ignore them. How can there be a sign for somebody who refuses to read any signs?

When Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, Jesus tells them to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples asked each other if this was because they didn’t bring enough bread, and Jesus reminds them that a lack of bread isn’t the problem because of miracles.

In Matthew, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast — just a little yeast works it’s way through all of the dough. Yeast is, you might say, like mustard or salt, or light; it fills the space it is given. Apparently, the kingdom of heaven isn’t the only thing that one can be full of. Do we not understand what the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees is?

Now, if I were to guess, I would guess that it would be the same yeast. Herod was a puppet king of Rome. The Pharisees were a powerful political party. One of the reoccurring themes in the gospel is that Jesus does not take a place as a politician, nor does he take an Earthly throne — indeed, he insists that his Kingdom is of another place. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the final temptation was political power, if he would worship Satan.

Christian leaders have compromised their faith and Christ’s teachings for the promise of political power on many occasions. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying: “primitive Church good, Constantine bad”, because I don’t believe that the leaders of the Roman empire embracing Christianity was a bad thing at all; but in some ways having a worldly kingdom as a nominal ally makes Christianity more complex. When Rome was an enemy, Christians were only concerned with how to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. With Rome as an ally, Christians also had to consider how to be a good Roman. No man can serve two masters — even when a kingdom of Earth is friendly, it still isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God. Because of Constantine, we must be careful that the temptation of political power does not change the mission of the Church.

I do want to observe that this change made Jesus’ final temptation, the temptation to seek worldly power instead of the Kingdom of God became very real at this point. In many ways, a hostile empire would have been easier — the yeast of worldly power can have a way of working it’s way through the church. If we are not careful, we might become more identified with a political position than with a gospel that heals and saves those around us. We risk choosing the kingdom of the world when we choose which master that we serve.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but beware of the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees. May we choose our yeast wisely, and may the right yeast work its way throughout the dough.

Mark 5:1-17; 7:24-37 — Healing enemies

Reading:  Mark 5:1-17, 7:24-37

When we read the how Jesus went to the land of the Garasenes, many things stand out. There is the fact this encounter took place in a graveyard, that the Demons were named Legion, that these demons went into pigs, and killed the entire herd of pigs, and that when they saw the formerly demon possessed man healed and in his right mind, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.

When I think of this, I notice that the land of the Garasenes is a place, so I look at a map. Looking at the map from this time period, I see on the coast of the Sea of Galilee is a city named Hippus, then after that you walk about 6 miles crossing the river Yarmuk and arrive at Gadara. Gerasa is deep inland, located at the same place as the modern Jordanian city of Jerash — which is more like a 40 mile walk. There is some variation in manuscripts however — some appear to refer to Gerasa, other appear to mention Gadara. Either way, to get to his destination, he had to cross the territory of at least one city state, and at minimum he had to walk a couple hours inland and cross a river.

Hippus, Gadara, Gerasa are all cities in a region know as Decapolis. Decapolis was a group of 10 Greek cities founded in the 4th century BC. These cities controlled a relatively large region of land, creating a region that was colonized and largely populated by Greeks. Decopolis used the Greek language, Greek Architecture, and was culturally Greek in a larger region that used the Aramaic language and was culturally Hebrew and Canaanite. Decapolis is a large Greek colony that supplanted those who were indigenous to the region.

Now, I know that for the most part our ancestors were colonists — we know what that looks like. Jerusalem also knew what it looked like to turn a city into a Greek colony. You might know about the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. This is the celebration of the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. One of the Cities that the Greeks tried to colonize and make culturally Greek was Jerusalem. One of the things they tried to do was to Hellenize the Jews — or, one might say de-Judize them.

The grievances the Jews had against the Greeks were pretty significant. They tried to force them to eat pork, and otherwise violate the Torah so they would better conform to Greek culture, and perhaps the most significant offense was that Antiochus entered Jerusalem and the temple re-dedicated to Zeus. He had an alter of Zeus placed at the alter, and scarified a pig to Zeus in the temple. The Temple was also looted, and copies of the Torah were destroyed.

There was a revolt, and Judas Maccabees and others drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and started a new Jewish kingdom — this Jewish kingdom remained independent until it was replaced with Herod’s kingdom; under Herod, they were a client-state of the Roman Empire; meaning they were not colonized but they were not independent either.

Here is the thing, this is a story of Jesus going somewhere uncomfortable for him and his disciples, and there is no obvious reason why he goes there. The city named in Mark implies he walked from morning to dusk into territory run by historic enemies; the last great enemies that the Jewish people fought and drove out of Judah.

His destination was also a place that would have caused discomfort; Jesus goes to a graveyard where none of his own relatives are buried. As you might know there is a taboo of dead bodies, so it violates this taboo for Jesus to enter a foreign graveyard. The Demons introduce themselves as Legion, the Roman equivalent of a modern Brigade — but most important, the demons introduced themselves with the name of what oppresses the Jewish people. When he cast out the demons, they went into a herd of unclean animals — pigs. Everything about Decapolis was something that was foreign to Jesus and his disciples; and the people there begged Jesus to leave when the man was found in his right mind.

What strikes me the most about this story is how one of its elements is not unique, but instead a theme that is repeated. This is not the only time that Jesus goes into a place that makes Jews uncomfortable — it is not the only time he visits historic enemies. The Sunday School lessons skip Chapter 7; in Chapter 7, Jesus goes to Phoenicia, specifically to the region of Tyre; Phoenicia was the last enclave of Canaanites — an ancient enemy of Israel. While Jesus is in Phoenicia, he speaks to a woman and casts a demon out from her daughter. The following miracle has him returning to Decapolis to heal a deaf man.

The pattern I see in this story, and in those following is that Jesus, with no clear reason why, travels to visit Israel’s enemies. Jesus finds a person who is in need of healing, and he saves that person; whether it is a Greek man who is a danger to himself and others, or a Canaanite girl, or a Greek man who is deaf and mute.

In Matthew, I would point to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells those who hear to love their enemies. In Mark, instead, I see this in a series of stories, very close to one another where Jesus leaves Jewish country to deliberately visit the nations that are historic enemies; and while he is there he offers healing and salvation to those who need it. The first time, there is fear and Jesus is asked to leave, but the second and third time people seek Jesus to ask him to heal somebody they know who needs it.

Sometimes it is easy to think about love for one’s neighbor as something passive. Sometimes we think of it as merely trying to get along. There are many times when I think of things this way — I want to be silent and invisible. I don’t want to make peace so much as I want to avoid conflict. I certainly don’t want to go somewhere uncomfortable. Jesus showed me another way though. Jesus shows me that sometimes loving enemies means going where they are and giving them what they need.

When Peter told these stories of Jesus going to the lands of the Gentiles, and even going to places that were unclean, he told a story that prefigured something in his own life. Peter was the disciple who had the vision that told him that the Church was to accept the Gentiles, without asking them to adopt the customs of the Jews. Peter was also the first apostle to go specifically to the Gentiles — he headed up a mission to Antioch, and he was the first to speak on behalf of the Gentiles to the Church in Jerusalem.

When Jesus went to Greek cities, or Canaanite cities he personally demonstrated that His gospel was of a wider scope than just the people of Judah. Yes, Jesus eventually gave a great Commission that called for the disciples to make disciples even at the ends of the earth — but He did more than speak this, he demonstrated that his mission went beyond the boundaries of his own country and his own people. Jesus saving a Greek man in a Greek graveyard from demon possession is more than another miracle story — it is a story that shows that the gospel is for everyone.

Mark 4:21-34 The kingdom of God is like mustard.

Reading: Mark 4:21-34

Last week we studied the parable of the soils — and this week we will focus on the parable that tells us that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; which starts so small, yet it becomes something huge. This is a parable that many of us can connect with. Anybody who has made pickles likely has put whole seeds in the brine for flavor — I have a little jar of mustard seeds myself, though I do not know if these are fertile.

Now, it is pretty easy to get hung up on some of the details of this parable. Jesus talks about how huge the mustard plant is; big enough for birds to shelter in them; but, those of us who are familiar with the plant know that it is generally between three and eight feet tall. It is a large plant for the garden, but it is not exactly a tree either.

Perhaps the best way to explain how the ancients saw the mustard plant is to tell you what an ancient writer said about it. Pliny the elder wrote a 10 volume set on natural history we think was published in 77 AD. Pliny’s Natural history is basically an encyclopedia of plants and animals. Pliny writes on Mustard:

With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being planted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once. (Pliny the Elder, Book 19, chapter 54)

Basically what we are looking at is an edible weed. Mustard is good for seasoning and good to eat. You can eat the greens; the seeds can be used as a spice, they can be pressed for oil, and they can make a flour that is quite nutritious. The problem is that the plant does not need any human help or effort to grow. It is not something you would be likely to plant in your garden, because it has a tendency to spread and take over the entire garden. Nobody wants a plant that it is nearly impossible to weed out!

Mustard has always been a weed that plagues field crops such as wheat and corn. When mustard is in a grain-field, farmers will find that their yield is cut in half, and it is even harder on a corn crop than it is on wheat and Soybeans. Farmers will delay planting so they can plow it under, or burn it, or if they have GMO crops that are highly resistant to herbicide they will kill mustard with chemicals.

Even though mustard grows like a weed, and in many contexts is a weed, it has also been domesticated for over 5000 years. Mustard grows well in a wide variety of soils with minimal effort. Mustard is one of those plants that can grow in very poor soil, and somehow enriches the soil it grows in. Because of this, mustard is sometimes used as a cover crop, and a green manure. In addition, mustard grows extremely quickly, produces eatable leaves and seeds that are valuable for both their flavor and their oil.

A single mustard plant will produce thousands of seeds in just 2 or 3 months. The plant produces seed-pods, each with a number of seeds inside. If the seeds are harvested, a single plant will produce thousands of seeds, and if the plant is not harvested, the seed pods will rupture and seed the whole area, and new mustard plants will grow. If the gardener is careless, mustard can spread to take over the whole garden — and the garden will fill with birds who are there to eat the bounty of seeds.

The kingdom of God is like mustard. The seed is so tiny, but it takes root and grows. In one generation, a single seed becomes a cup, or more, of seeds. Before the growing season is over, the scattered seeds take root and another generation comes; it does not take many seasons for a single seed to have filled an entire field with mustard plants. The kingdom of God is like mustard; something that takes root when the soil is less than perfect, and yet it will fill the field giving nourishment to the soil, to the birds, and to people. Once we’ve got God’s kingdom planted and growing in us — we have all of it’s nourishing benefit, but it is not something that is easy to control, nor to free ourselves of it; God’s kingdom will take us over.

Last week, the parable of the soils talked about a sower planting grain — mustard isn’t grain, and if the sower planted mustard instead, the mustard may have pushed out the weeds, given enough moisture it would have grown in the rocky soil, and in good soil it would have produced 5,000, 10,000, and 50,000 fold. I believe that we are invited to have the kingdom of God in us — and that our hearts and lives are where this mustard will grow.

Remember, though, mustard isn’t the only parable that applies to the kingdom of heaven, and to disciples. We see, and are, salt and light. There is a sense that the Kingdom of God isn’t only to sprout and change a few people’s hearts, but it is supposed to enlighten the whole world, to bring flavor to the whole world, to in a real sense bring salvation to the whole world.

When we look at the world around us; it often seems like the kingdom of heaven is the furthest thing away in the world. The west has been secularized. Even devout Christians often seem to prefer the way the kingdoms of this world works to the kingdom of heaven. Sometimes it seems like things are being pushed backwards.

The truth is, it is exactly as Pliny wrote: when the mustard grows, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it. We forget how far we have come. The wisdom of the ancients and the world was that only the wealthy and the powerful had any value — and that the gods had no interest in the poor, only in the most elite. Jesus challenged this, and now the world at large realizes that the poor have value; this is the effect of Mustard.

To get a sense of how strong this view was, remember when Herod killed the babies after the wise men came? Historians do not mention this at all; granted, we are talking about a couple dozen poor kids who would never grow up to be anybody anyways. Today, this would be news, and would be condemned as an atrocity, this is the effect of Mustard.

Ancient Romans would take unwanted babies out into the wilderness to die; today, there is a real attempt to save babies, including saving those who might otherwise be thrown away. Systems have been built with the intent to save such babies; first by churches, but also now by governments. We have gone a long way since churches had ‘baby hatches’ or foundling wheels to collect unwanted babies and make sure they were cared for from about 1000 years ago to when they have become unnecessary in the western world in the 19th century. (Though, the practice has recently been resurrected here in Indiana.) We live in a world that looks for ways to save babies that would once be taken out to the woods and left to die — this is the effect of mustard.

Jesus was born into a culture where most human life was not valued. Blood sports and executions were popular entertainment. Even as Rome became Christianized, the cultural norms of the Roman people still continued. It took centuries for the gladiators to stop killing each other for the entertainment of the masses — however, these ended in the fifth century. A monk, Telemachus went from the East to Rome. While in Rome, he went to the Coliseum and went onto the field where the gladiators were fighting, and asked them to stop. The crowd was so furious that he interrupted their entertainment that they threw rocks at the monk, and stoned him to death. After the audience killed a monk, the gladiator games came to an end, and Telmachus’ name was included in the names of Christian martyrs that people remember. Ever since this time, it would be unthinkable to re-introduce entertainment where two people try to kill each other; this is the effect of mustard. (Theodort’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 5 chapter 26)

The kingdom of God is like Mustard; and that Mustard is growing in the Church, but it also spreads to everything that the Church touches. The world we live in is changed because the Seed grows throughout the world. The Kingdom of God is taking root — and, while there are attempts to weed it out, Pliny the Elder was correct: It is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.